NEW HAVEN, Conn.--In an ambitious attempt to replicate nature, various researchers are seeking to create fuels from water and sunlight, much the way plants do.
California Institute of Technology professor Nate Lewis on Saturday gave a snapshot of the "swing for the fences" research his lab is pursuing to make fuels directly from water and sunlight. Caltech last year was picked as the lead for a newly created Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP) to run the Department of Energy's Fuels from Sunlight Energy Innovation Hub.
The center is one of many so-called solar fuels efforts that seek to bypass the traditional biofuel method of growing plants and then convert biomass to a transportable, liquid fuel. Other researchers and companies are seeking to genetically engineer microbes that secrete fuels or develop cheaper methods for splitting water to make hydrogen fuel.
During a talk at the Yale Climate & Energy Institute's annual conference, Lewis described the concepts driving his research and what form a solar fuel generator could take.
The sun is the largest source of energy, but storing solar energy with conventional means, such as batteries, is very expensive, he said. The notion behind his research is to store solar energy in the chemical bonds of fuels. Light-duty transportation will move toward electric vehicles because they are more efficient than internal combustion engines, but there is still a need for liquid fuels in other forms of transportation or to generate power when there is no sun.
"It's inevitable that we will find a way to efficiently take the biggest energy source we have in the sun and store it in chemical fuels, thereby obviating the storage problem, thereby having a drop-in replacement fuel, and thereby solving the (fuel) infrastructure problem," he said. "We are going to do this. The question is how fast and how soon." … Read more